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The “big three” banks that keep on hiring in Singapore and Hong Kong

Big three

Citi, HSBC and Standard Chartered have generated their share of negative headlines in Asia of late as they retrench some of their operations across the region. But the trio are still generating plenty of corporate banking jobs in Singapore, Hong Kong and China and remain relatively attractive to candidates despite the growth of Asian-headquartered rivals.

The banks have reduced their operations in countries, both in Asia and globally, where they have failed to achieve sufficient profitability or market penetration. Last week Citi announced its withdrawal from consumer finance in South Korea and retail banking in Japan. And in recent years HSBC has, for example, sold its Japanese private bank to Credit Suisse and exited Korean retail banking, while Standard Chartered is also struggling in Korea and is closing branches there.

However, recruiters in Singapore, Hong Kong and China say that Citi, HSBC and Stan Chart are still regarded as the de facto “big three” foreign corporate banks in terms of their hiring requirements. “They are pretty much in their own peer group for candidates as they are similar in their offerings as well in their structure,” says Farida Charania, Asia Pacific CEO of search firm Nastrac Group in Singapore.

Recruiters also say that the three banks are increasingly inclined to poach staff from each other. “Many senior bankers in Singapore and Hong Kong have been with at least two of the three banks during their careers,” says Charania. She adds that HSBC is expanding its corporate-banking product and cash and trade sales teams in Singapore and Hong Kong, while both it and Stan Chart are hiring “very aggressively” in wholesale banking sales roles.

Standard Chartered is generally seen as having the stronger employer brand in Singapore, where it has about 7,400 staff, while HSBC’s Asia stronghold is Hong Kong – the firm earns as much from Hong Kong as it does from the rest of Asia combined. Citi, which last week announced record fourth quarter Asian results, spreads its revenues more evenly across the region.

“In China, each of the three has its strengths for candidates according to its client base,” adds Alistair Ramsbottom, managing director of Shanghai search firm The Blacklock Group. “For HSBC it’s multi nationals and privately-owned enterprises; for Stan Chart mainly POEs; and for Citi it’s mainly large Chinese corporates.”

Much of the banks’ hiring is, however, focused on middle-office roles. The legal and compliance headcount at Stan Chart – a firm which generates 75% of its revenues from Asia – rose 30% in the year to 30 June, according to its half-year results. HSBC’s results for the same period also reveal the increased cost of bulking up in risk and compliance. “One candidate I spoke to recently mentioned that HSBC’s culture in Asia was more back-office focused, which meant that getting deals approved, especially on time, was very time consuming,” says Ramsbottom.

The big three’s ability to attract candidates in corporate banking has recently come under threat from a variety of smaller, but expanding, Asia Pacific banks, most notably ANZ and DBS. “Many candidates in Asia now spend their early years training at one of the three large banks and then move to a medium-sized bank or a domestic bank,” says Ramsbottom. “But recently I have also come across people who have then moved back to HSBC, SCB or Citi.”

Standard Chartered is currently the most vulnerable to emerging banks poaching its staff. Recent regulatory investigations and profit falls have led to an increase in Singapore-based Stan Chart employees seeking out opportunities elsewhere, according to a recruiter in the city state who asked not to be named.

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